Popeology 101: How to Interpret the Sistine Chapel Results

The key to analyzing how the new Pope will rule may lie in the factions of Cardinals that come together to elect him

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Updated: March 13, 2013, 2:15 p.m. EDT

When a plume of white smoke emerged from the Vatican’s chimney around 7:15 p.m. Wednesday evening, the masses gathered in St. Peter’s Square erupted in cheers. But what happens now?

Once the new Pope is elected, he will be led to the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, just above the main door of Baroque architectural masterpiece. On that so-called Loggia of the Blessings, Cardinal Proto-Deacon Jean-Louis Tauran of France will announce in Latin: “Habemus Papam!”, pronounce the given name of the elected Pontiff and declare the name he has chosen under which to reign. The Vicar of Christ and the leader of the Roman Catholic Church will then emerge and give his first traditional Urbi et Orbi — the papal blessing saluting and praying for the city of Rome and the wider world.

The personality of the Pope and his biography will be paramount in judging what to expect from his rule over a spiritual empire that touches more than 1 billion souls and whose influence crosses borders and contends against other principalities and powers. But there is much to be gleaned about how the new Pope will administer his kingdom from what went into the Sistine Chapel with the 115 Cardinal electors charged with discerning God’s will for the leadership of the church.

As the absolute ruler of the Roman Catholic Church, a Pope can do as he pleases. Yet, the ideological and political position he occupied among his fellow princes of the church will stamp his reign from the get-go. The ideology may have already been preordained since, before his abdication, Pope Benedict XVI basically packed the College of Cardinals with prelates who apparently agreed with his conservative agenda. As Pope Emeritus, his presence will also be a constant reminder to the new Pontiff not to stray too far from the Benedictine prescriptions — if only not to embarrass the retired ruler of the church living in the Vatican garden.

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Still, the politics of the Holy See will divide even Cardinals who share the same interpretation of doctrine. There are two large factions. For want of real designations, let’s call them the repairers and the bureaucrats. (The divisions too are fluid, with Cardinals fitting into both camps’ Venn diagrams.)

The repairers — who may also be reformers, though that may overstate their intentions — want to fix the various controversies roiling the church in a way that will dramatically stop the bleeding of church prestige and reputation. Their core is the U.S. delegation of Cardinals who, among other things, have suffered through a decade of media humiliation because of the priestly abuse scandals — and want the new Pope to deal forcefully with the problems. Thus, if Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York or Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston emerges as the new Pontiff, it will be a victory for the repairers. In terms of photogenicity, at least, O’Malley and his white Capuchin monk beard would give the papacy a Santa-like appearance.

The American agenda, however, may have been too forward for the Vatican establishment. In fact, the numerous press conferences scheduled by U.S. prelates in the run-up to the conclave were quickly canceled by the Vatican’s media managers. In the past as well, American Cardinals were automatically — though not officially — eliminated from consideration as Popes because of the geopolitical unseemliness of handing the top job of the church to a citizen of a superpower. The Americans and their allies may thus be banking on an Italian: Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, of Milan. Scola has the advantage of being perceived as a favorite of the former Pope, a distinction made evident by his recent accession to Milan, one of the richest dominions of the Catholic Church. He has a further pedigree. His previous appointment was Patriarch of Venice — three Popes in the 20th century held that post: Pius X, who was the last Pontiff canonized as saint; John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council and its reforms; and John Paul I, the last Italian Pope.

Oddly enough, a very Italian institution stands in the opposition to the Americans and their agenda: the Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the religious institutions of the Holy See. The genes of the Curia are both physically and spiritually Italian. The word means court — as in royal court, with all the intrigue that connotes — and historically the men who occupied the various departments of the bureaucracy were aristocrats and blood nobility. The sense of privilege — and right to power — continues to this day, even though the holders of the office may no longer be ethnic Italians (many still are). The bureaucrats aren’t averse to dealing with the church’s problems, which include the hydra-headed issue of the Vatican’s finances. They just have their own ideas of how to do it, while preserving the power of their offices.

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Strangely enough, the Curia faction — which has a core of about 39 Cardinals out of the 115 electors — appears to be coalescing around a non-Italian: Cardinal Odilo Scherer, 63, of São Paulo, the largest diocese in Brazil, the world’s most populous Catholic country. Of German descent, Scherer also happens to have impeccable Curia credentials. From 1994 to 2001 he worked in Rome as a consultant to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, the key office that vets and chooses candidates for the church’s top positions for the Pope’s final approval. Scola may have been the perceived front-runner at Benedict’s resignation but in the nine or 10 days in which the Cardinals have been able to hobnob and get to know each other, the murmurs about Scherer have rumbled louder and louder.

The trouble with the Curia, however, is that it is split by a feud between two powerful Cardinals: Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, and his predecessor Angelo Sodano, now the Dean of the College of Cardinals. The split is a historic one — and a reflection of Benedict XVI’s awkward and perhaps partisan attempt to fix the Curia. At the behest of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI in 1967 reorganized the Curia, giving prominence to the diplomats of the church, embodied in the bureaucracy of the Secretary of State. That pride of placement used to belong to the Holy Office — the department that Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict eventually ran. When Ratzinger became Pope, he promoted his deputy in that office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to Secretary of State. That would be Bertone. The transdepartmental appointment did not sit well the diplomats — and Sodano — who had been the stars of the bureaucracy until then.

Whether or not the two divisions of the Curial faction can get over their differences to establish a cohesive block vote for one candidate is the big question. If it isn’t Scherer, they have other Cardinals who have similar qualifications, including Peter Erdo, 60, of Hungary; Peter Turkson, 64, of Ghana; Marc Ouellet, 68, of Canada; and Leonardo Sandri, 68, of Argentina, who has the added attraction of being ethnic Italian. Whether the diversity of choices helps or hurts remains to be seen. Turkson’s election as the first black man to become Pope would electrify the church, though his chances may have been hurt by perceptions that he (or his partisans) appear to be campaigning for him.

(MORE: The Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI: Is It Health? Or Politics? Or Both?)

Of course, the Cardinal electors may surprise everyone. The new precedent of a Pope choosing to retire rather than serve till death may convince them to choose a younger man to lead the church — one who may choose to step down from the papal throne earlier — and whose relative youth would allow him to both learn the byzantine ways of the Vatican and choose how to reform them. One such candidate is Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who is only 55 but a rising star in the hierarchy and a recognized expert on the reforms of Vatican II.

It is also entirely within the realm of possibility that a maverick will be chosen. One attractive if rebellious candidate would be Christoph Schönborn, 68, of Austria. The Cardinal committed one cardinal sin for which he has won much popular acclaim: he criticized a fellow Cardinal. And not just any Cardinal but the powerful and influential Sodano. In June 2010, with the priestly abuse scandal sweeping Europe, Sodano dismissed the furor as “petty gossip.” The Austrian, at a supposedly closed-door meeting with journalists, harshly criticized Sodano, saying among other things that he had been responsible for sinking an inquiry into Schönborn predecessor as Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer, who had been accused of abuse. Schönborn’s remarks quickly became public, and he was quickly called to Rome by the Pope to apologize to Sodano and be rebuked. “It is to be reminded that in the Church, when it comes to accusations against a Cardinal, only the Pope is competent,” said a tersely Vatican communiqué issued at the end of the meeting.

And yet, Schönborn’s outspokenness has made him a serious outsider contender for the papacy. And it helps too — like almost all the other frontrunners for Pope — that he has a strong lineal connection to the office. When he was studying theology in the 1970s, Schönborn was the star pupil of one of the great theologians of the Catholic Church: Ratzinger, who would become the future Benedict XVI and the current Pope Emeritus.

— With reporting by Alessandro Speciale / Rome

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